Friday, May 13, 2016

No Films Grrr

Sorry about the lack of a film review, folks. Believe it or not, I can't find anything worth reviewing at the moment. I tried several recent films this week and they all just left me feeling blah and like I had nothing to say. I may need to do something like "The Summer of 80's."
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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Game of Thrones Open Thread

By Kit

Well, we had some pretty big stuff happen Sunday night on Game of Thrones. I decided to pick it back up after catching last season's finale.

If you want a glimpse of what happened, here. MAJOR SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!

SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!!!



Yep, Jon Snow is alive, Tyron came face to face with the dragons, Arya is still blind but may finally be regaining her sight (at the cost of her identity), Ramsey Bolton behaved like a sociopathic dickhole (i.e., he behaved like himself), and Jon Snow is alive. Thoughts?

Surprised? Or not at this twist even blind Arya Stark saw coming.
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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Some Thoughts On Django Unchained

So, I got this interesting email today. It came from a college student who had read my article on why Blazing Saddles couldn’t be made today and she asked if I thought that Django Unchained was an effective racial satire. I thought I would share my answer with you folks and see what you thought. Here goes.

As a general rule, I've found Tarantino's work to be brilliant. He has both a gift for dialog (particularly seen in Public Fiction) and a gift for figuring out how to take things that should shock and disgust us and instead turning those into funny and often enlightening moments. Unfortunately, I think these gifts failed him in Django Unchained, and rather than making a clever racial satire, he ended up making what really amounts to a revenge film.

Where Brooks and Pryor succeed so brilliantly was in pinpointing things that a lot of people still believed were true either out of fear, stupidity or ignorance. They then twisted these stereotypes to expose how silly they were. A great example is when the "superior" white cowboys running the rail crew tell Clevon Little and his friends to sing a black "work song" and they sing "I get no kick from champagne." This mocks the white stereotype that poor black people sing spirituals, and it does so by showing them singing a high-class elegant song sung by Cole Porter. Basically, it shows that black culture has aspects that are very high class indeed, and it thereby disproves the stereotype. Then Brooks goes further and has the white cowboys proceed to make fools of themselves trying to explain what they perceive to be black culture as the blacks laugh at them. This mocks the intelligence level of the people who bought into the stereotype in the first place. The end result is that everyone laughs and the white audience feels ashamed if they had thought like the cowboys did.
Prior's satire is similar in the sense that he points out stereotypes that obviously aren't true and then he essentially says, "we're just humoring you dumb people." Again, everyone laughs and the people who bought into the stereotype feel stupid and ashamed to re-assert it.

The keys in both cases are (1) stereotypes which are the result of ignorance, (2) and which clearly are not true or which can be debunked easily, and (3) turning the joke so that anyone who claims to believe the stereotype will feel stupid and ashamed for doing so.

Tarantino doesn't do this.

First of all, the characters Tarantino uses are not unintentionally racist because they are ignorant. They are intentionally racist because they are vicious and hateful and they view blacks as less than human. No one sitting in the audience will identify with those characters. That limits the ability of the film to make people re-evaluate themselves. By comparison, there are many characters in Blazing Saddles or in Pryor's routines that anyone can identify with. Moreover, it changes the film from being a satire about race in our culture to being a satire of hateful racists.

Secondly, Tarantino doesn't really expose modern stereotypes. Instead, he attacks an entire era. So whereas Brooks and Pryor picked out things modern whites may have wrongly believed about blacks, Tarantino really doesn't address modern themes. Hence, while Brooks and Pryor are saying, "Wow, does anyone really believe this anymore?" Tarantino is saying "Wow, were the people in the post-Civil War South rotten." That's a big difference.

Third, rather than showing us the error of our thinking, as Brooks and Pryor did so well, Tarantino just has the main character brutalize the racists. So rather than having a film that constantly asks us, "You weren't stupid enough to think like this, were you?" Tarantino instead gave us a film where the hero runs around killing everyone whose views he doesn't like. And while this may be satisfying for some people, it doesn't ultimately change any minds. To the contrary, I would suspect that it actually is more likely to go the other way by confirming to people that they should be afraid because "those people hate you." (With "those people" being both the whites who hate the black hero and the black hero who gets revenge against the whites.) In other words, whereas Brooks and Pryor told us that we better change our thinking because everyone is laughing at us, Tarantino is telling blacks "whites are racist" and telling whites "watch out or blacks will start killing you."

So ultimately, I don't see Django Unchained as being an effective satire about race.

Thoughts?
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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Film Friday: CHAPPiE (2015)

Though I doubt Director Neill Blomkamp would admit this, but his latest film CHAPPiE is Robocop 2. Robocop 2 was a fun, though flawed movie. CHAPPiE, on the other hand, sucked. In fact, they should have called it CRAPPiE. Skip this one.

The Plot

Robocop 2 is the story of a man who has been turned into a robot and now works as a police officer in Detroit. The evil corporation that built him decides they need to destabilize Detroit so they can sell their new combat robot the ED-209. They want to give the ED-209 a chance to show what it can do in terms of restoring order. To do this, they corrupt Robocop’s programming and make him useless, letting crime run rampant. Eventually, Robocop frees himself from the programming and he takes on the evil ED-209 robot built by the evil corporation and destroys it.

Now tell me if this sounds familiar.
CHAPPiE is the story of a robot who works as a police officer in Johannesburg, South Africa who gets turned into a man, or at least becomes sentient. A key employee (Hugh Jackman) at the evil corporation that built him decides he needs to destabilize Johannesburg so he can sell his new combat robot (let's call it, hmm, how about the ED-209a?). He wants to give the ED-209a a chance to show what it can do in terms of restoring order. To do this, he corrupts all the police robots and shuts them down, letting crime run rampant. Eventually, CHAPPiE’s friends teach him morality (or at least a sense of revenge) and then he takes on the evil ED-209a robot built by the evil employee and destroys it.
There is a twist at the very end which is meant to "elevate" the film, but honestly you won’t care. Basically, CHAPPiE is a police robot which gets destroyed by the evil gang from The Road Warrior. Rather than scrap him, the Indian scientist from Short Circuit realizes that in death, CHAPPiE has become alive. Don’t ask the film to explain it though, because it won't. Dr. Short Circuit tries to take CHAPPiE home to work on him, but he gets kidnapped by the Road Warrior gang who want their own police robot. Dr. Short Circuit gives them the robot and they name him and feed him and teaching him how to be white trash. Soon, he’s garbling his lines in ghetto South African, he’s wearing rapper gear, and he’s jacking cars. Isn’t that cute? Anyways, at the end, CHAPPiE figures out how to transfer his consciousness into another robot. He does the same for the dying Dr. Short Circuit and for the dead white trash chick who taught him nothing redeeming. Gee.
Oh, and he brutally beats Hugh Jackman to near death after Jackman kills the Road Warrior gang, including the white trash chick, and Dr. Short Circuit.

This Film Sucked

I’ve said for a long time that Neill Blomkamp is a leftist. Even as other conservatives bizarrely thought that District 9 was somehow conservative, I noted the standard leftist anti-white, anti-male, anti-police, anti-military, anti-corporate, and anti-capitalism themes and undertones. Then came Elysium with its nonsense anti-white, anti-police, anti-corporate, anti-capitalism, and pro-universal healthcare themes. Now we have this. This time, you have evil white capitalist ex-military types who want to destroy a sentient robot who is so gosh darn ghetto cute. The evil Road Warrior gang is entirely white, of course.
Still, I could overlook his politics if his films didn’t suck. District 9 was sloppy and uncreative without any appealing characters. It also felt a LOT like the miniseries V. Elysium was derivative nonsense that substituted propaganda for plot. None of its characters were appealing either. This one... this one is a poor rip-off of Robocop 2. This gives the film an uncomfortable “I’ve seen this story before” feeling. Add in all the not-credible moments that go unexplained – like how CHAPPiE comes alive, why he would have no programming when he did but would quickly get all the programming he needs, why Dr. Short Circuit randomly visits the robot but the Road Warrior gang don’t kill him, etc. – and what you get is a movie that feels like nonsense. And finally, add in the utter lack of appealing characters once again.
Seriously, these characters are impossible to like. Obviously, you’re not supposed to like Jackman or the Road Warrior gang or the corporate president (Sigourney Weaver). The people you are supposed to like are Dr. Short Circuit, the white trash couple, and CHAPPiE himself. But Dr. Short Circuit is a random character whose motives are unclear and who feels like a plot convenience. When he dies at the end it’s hard to remember that he was even in the film anymore. White trash chick ostensibly wants to raise CHAPPiE as if he were a child, but she’s white trash with an ugly accent and the values of a gang banger. Listening to her “mother” a robot with the Religion for Dummies take on a human soul is hard to take. Then her boyfriend trains CHAPPiE to use the same pigeon English they do, to carry himself like a drug dealer, to carjack people, and to hurt people (but it’s funny because they’re rich!!). That makes them and CHAPPiE super hard to like.
In fact, by the time Jackman shows up with his evil capitalist military ED-209a robot, it seems pretty clear that killing off all the characters would be best for society... and probably for them too. It’s hard to like a movie like that, especially when the director doesn’t seem to realize that the characters he offers as the good, likable heroes are all rotten sh*ts who need a delousing and a serious prison-yard beating.

Honestly, this movie felt like an insult. Blomkamp insulted my intelligence by trying to do a hidden remake of Robocop 2, and playing the robot as childlike. He insulted my political and moral beliefs with his themes. He insulted my cultural sensitivities by trying to shove this gang banger culture in my face. And he insulted my time by not doing anything interesting or original at any point during the movie.

I’m glad I didn’t pay to see this turd.
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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Film Friday: The Boys From Brazil (1978)

Imagine a film starring Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier, James Mason, Denholm Elliot, a dozen other people you know, and Steve Guttenberg. Imagine I told you it was a thriller with a very original idea that involved Nazis. Boo hiss! Imagine it was made during the same time period when Star Wars, Close Encounters, The Godfather and a dozen other classics were made. Sounds like a heck of a film, doesn’t it? Yeah, no.

Plot

The Boys From Brazil involves a secret plot by escaped Nazi war criminals now living in Brazil. The man coordinating the plot is the infamous Dr. Joseph Mengele (Peck). As the film opens, Mengele’s scheme is uncovered by a young Nazi hunter (Guttenberg). He learns that Mengele and his team are planning to kill 94 men in several different European and North American countries. The reason for this is not clear. Guttenberg calls the famed Erza Lieberman (Olivier) to get his help. Lieberman has become discredited and cynical and refuses to help, however. Then Guttenberg is killed by Mengele.
Lieberman realizes that Mengele is behind the murder and decides he must take action. He begins to investigate the leads Guttenberg gave him before he died. While investigating, Lieberman runs across something strange. Each of the men slated to be killed has a similar profile (middle-age civil servant) and each has an identical, adopted son. Realizing very quickly that this cannot be a coincidence, and that the boys cannot be twins, Lieberman realizes they are clones.

We, of course, know that these boys are clones. What’s more, we know they are clones made from Adolph Hitler’s DNA. And the reason the 94 men have similar profiles and are being killed is that Mengele hopes to recreate Hitler by re-creating him genetically and then making each boy go through a similar childhood to the one Hitler had. He believes this will lead to a reincarnation of Hitler.
Meanwhile, the other Nazis order Mengele to stop his experiment, which is drawing too much heat. They also tell him to avoid Lieberman. Mengele violates his orders, however, and goes to kill Lieberman. This results in an odd showdown in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where one of the clones lets his dogs kill Mengele.

Why This Was A Turdburger

On paper, this film has amazing potential. Seriously, it offers Nazis, a sinister global plot, and tons of potential action. And best of all, the casting was top notch! Is Mengele’s plan a little weak? Sure, but in a well-done film you won’t have time to think about it until well after you’ve left the theater. So what went wrong? The failure of this film is a classic example of what happens when a writer/director thinks the set up is so strong that it sells itself. In fact, that idea permeates this film time and again leaving unsatisfied potential everywhere. Consider this...

The idea of a group of Nazi war criminals hatching a global plot that will ultimately lead to the rebirth of a new Nazi German under a cloned Adolph Hitler is a strong idea... at least on the surface. There are some definite problems with this. For one thing, Hitler took advantage of unique circumstances. So you can make all the clones you want, but unless you find another Germany in the Great Depression, they won’t be able to do anything. Further, history tells us that Hitler made as many ruinous mistakes as he made brilliant decisions. And by the end of the war, he had become such a drug-addicted mental case that he was ordering around phantom armies, shooting loyal subordinates, and abandoning hundreds of thousands of soldiers to fruitless deaths. Why recreate him? Recreate Stalin if anyone.

Anyways, that issue aside, the real problem is that once we know the scheme, there’s no sense of urgency to it. The film never once convinces us that the societies where these Hitler²s live are looking for a Hitler, nor does it suggest that the Nazis have political connections that would let them place these Hitler²s into power. So at best, this film tells the story of a plot that could one day evolve into a genuine scheme for power. That’s weak. Nor does the director substitute action to generate tension. There are a couple murders, but they are quite dull. There are no chases, no lucky escapes, and no fights. In each case, we’re supposed to be shocked by the fact of the murder rather than how it gets carried out. And that’s just the beginning.
Lieberman is meant to be the lone hero who still fights for justice when the rest of the world no longer cares. That’s a great character. But once again, the writer/director seem to think the existence of the character is enough. Indeed, he never really does anything throughout the film. He doesn’t trick the villains or defeat them in any way. All he does it travel to meet people Guttenberg has identified. Even when he finally seems to put together Mengele’s plot, he does nothing with it. He just waits until Mengele comes to kill him, then someone else kills Mengele, and then the film ends.

In fact, throughout this film, both the Mengele character and the Lieberman character underwhelm. Lieberman is meant to come across as noble, tenacious and resolute. But Olivier seems to think that his being a Jew who spends his life hunting Nazis is enough to give the character life, so he just stumbles around meekly as the plot magically plays out for him. Mengele, on the other hand, is a Nazi who did cruel experiments on death camp victims. Just like Olivier, Peck thinks this is enough to make the character. So he swaggers around and barks orders and he shoots people casually, but that’s about all he gives you to feel his evil. There’s never anything to let you into this guy’s mind or to explain his actions. In fact, neither actor does anything to give you any more insight into the character than you would get from knowing their background. It’s like being given a sports car and then letting it sit in the driveway.
The ending is another example. The ending involves a one on one battle of wits between Mengele himself and Lieberman for the soul of one of the Hitler² boys, with the loser to be torn apart by dogs! Sounds exciting doesn’t it? What’s more, when Mengele loses, there is the delicious irony that he is killed because he made these boys evil. Sounds great, right? Well, once again, the writer/director thought the setup was enough. So when the scene occurs, almost nothing happens. Mengele has a gun and wounds Lieberman at the outset. Then they both sit down and say things to the Hitler². Neither one is particularly convincing. There is no discussion of the kid’s destiny. There is no battle of philosophies or moralities. There’s no ticking clock to add urgency to the moment. They both just kind of say, “pick me!” and the boy decides. Yawn.

This problem repeats itself throughout. At every turn, the film relies on the setup itself to hold the audience’s interest and it does nothing to develop interest independently. Even the presence of the Nazis is done lazily. You see one brief moment where you have some people in Nazi uniforms at a ball, but there’s no sense that these people truly have an ideology, a goal, or an organization that is capable of doing anything more than holding a ball in Brazil.

The end result of this is a film filled with potential which never once lives up to that potential. And that makes the film boring. This film failed scene by scene.

Thoughts?
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Thursday, April 7, 2016

Film Friday: The Trouble With Harry (1955)

A couple weeks ago, I spoke about Topaz and how unsatisfying it was. Today, I want to talk about a Hitchcock film that I love and lament the fact that this film wouldn’t be made today. The film is The Trouble With Harry. What is the trouble with Harry? The trouble is that Harry’s dead.

The Trouble With Harry was one of Hitchcock’s few genuine comedies and it was, sadly, a financial failure. It then disappeared for a while, but is now available and has quite a strong following.

At its heart, this film is a romantic comedy that takes place against a sort of murder mystery where several characters believe they may have killed a man named Harry. The story takes place in Highwater, Vermont, and it begins with the discovery of a corpse on a hill top. The corpse is Harry, and it’s not clear who has killed him.
In fact, three of the main characters each think they may have been the one who killed Harry. Retired sea Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) thinks he shot Harry with his rifle when he shot at a rabbit and missed. Harry’s estranged wife Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine) thinks she killed Harry by hitting him with a milk bottle on the head after he showed up at her home. And retired naturalist Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick) thinks she killed Harry by striking him with her hiking boot after he came at her while still groggy from the blow he received from the milk bottle.

Bringing them all together is Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), a proto-hipster artist. He is looking for something to paint when he stumbles upon these people trying to figure out what to do about the body. The problem is that none of them knows who actually killed Harry, and none of them knows what to do next – particularly as no one is going to miss Harry. As they sort this out through a series of missteps, love blooms between a few of the characters. Meanwhile, they need to avoid Deputy Sheriff Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano), who seems intent on finding some wrongdoing.
So what makes this film so enjoyable? For one, it is a beautifully shot story that gives you a sense of how great Vermont can be when the leaves change. To me, this is a Fall movie, just like Something Wicked This Way Comes. For another, the actors are all fantastic in this. They have tremendous chemistry, which makes you want to spend time with them. For yet another, the film is exceedingly funny in a dry-wit sort of way. You won’t ever laugh out loud, but you will smile a lot and chuckle repeatedly.

Indeed, the humor is quite subtle. The humor in The Trouble With Harry comes from the setup itself, which is quite funny, and the group’s missteps in handling the body. It also comes from the indifference with which they are treating the death. Mostly though, it comes from the quirkiness of the characters.

What I like best though is the sensibility of this comedy. This film is good-naturedly pleasant. You just don’t see that anymore. Indeed, modern comedies are all about flying bodily fluids, absurd characters, and trying to shock the audience with the level of nastiness in which the characters engage. This is so different.
This film wins you over with the exact opposite. This film is about very normal set of people who find themselves in a bizarre situation and yet refuse to abandon their normal sensibilities when trying to figure out how to solve this. Modern comedies, by comparison, are about weirdos imposing their weirdness on the normal world. To me, this is the difference between Shakespeare and an internet novel. Hitchcock has taken on a truly difficult task and has masterfully given you a story you will enjoy and keep enjoying for years. It is complex, subtle and beautiful. Apatow and Sandler and their types give you shock that wears off often times before the film is even over. All they need to do to write their films is come up with something gross or offensive.

What’s more, Hitchcock avoids cynicism. Sure, on the surface it seems cynical, but the story quickly proves itself sentimental and hopeful. That is hard to write without the story becoming saccharine and phony. Hitchcock walks that line. Apatow and Sandler don’t even bother: they traffic in cynicism, which is the ultimate writer’s crutch.
Hitchcock also does something else you don’t see anymore: there’s no villain. I’ve mentioned this before, but most of the greatest films of all time actually don’t have a villain to oppose the protagonist. That is something you simply don’t find anymore, however. These days, all films have villains because they are an easy way for bad writers to create conflict. Compare that with this film, where the conflict comes from the consciences of the characters who each think they killed Harry. Could you image an Apatow film being about three characters genuinely struggling with their own consciences? Hardly. If this film were done today, one of them would be trying to frame the others and it would end in a shootout, and that would wipe out everything that makes this film special.

Ben Kenobi once described a lightsaber as “not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilize age.” That is this film. It is not clumsy or random as the comedies of today, it is an elegant film for a more civilized age. I highly recommend this film.

Thoughts?
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Monday, April 4, 2016

Guest Review: Dope (2015)

by tryanmax

Dope is a low-key, coming-of-age comedy about a misfit black high schooler from a bad neighborhood who wants to go Harvard. It’s also a great example of how to squander audience goodwill with a single sentence. All-in-all, it was a decent film which I enjoyed watching, but would probably not comment on except that, with one line near the end, the filmmakers managed to destroy all of the goodwill they had built up over 90 minutes. I’ll tell you what that line was in a bit.

First, about the movie. Malcolm is a geek. So we are told by the film’s opening narration. It’s a bit patronizing, given that we soon see for ourselves that Malcolm doesn’t fit in to his rough, Inglewood, California neighborhood. He’s obsessed with 90’s hip hop and Bitcoin, he gets good grades, and he is picked on by the thugs who run the block.

Malcolm is cajoled into going to a party hosted by a known drug dealer. At the party, a deal goes south and a shootout ensues. Malcolm believes he has escaped unscathed, but discovers the next day at school that someone has slipped the drugs and a gun into his backpack. He wants to dump them as quickly as possible, but he finds himself caught between rival gangs as well as the everyday tribulations of high school.

What follows is a wild goose chase through a series of outlandish scenarios and a few minor twists. Conceptually, it’s all funny, but less of it is played for laughs than one might expect. The vein that runs through everything is the idea that, as an outsider, Malcolm sees the world differently, and so he finds unique solutions to the problems he encounters. This is true to a certain extent and also serves to highlight the character’s darkest moment when, in a decidedly unoriginal move, Malcolm solves a problem by pointing (but not shooting) a gun. It’s a pivotal scene that illustrates how even a resourceful individual can succumb to making base decisions in trying circumstances.
If all the film set out to do was to give audiences a view of different lives, that would be enough. At the point where Malcolm backs away from a potentially ruinous decision, the audience has seen enough of his world to appreciate the gravity of it. Even if the filmmakers wanted to inject a more pointed message, the audience is now primed for it, so long as the message makes sense.

Instead, it goes for an easy zinger.

As loose ends are tied up on screen, Malcolm reads his Harvard entrance essay in voice over. It’s an abstract retelling of the preceding film, which is fine until the closing line: “Why do I want to attend Harvard? If I was white, would you even have to ask me the question?”

Where did that come from?

“If I was white—” is a very loaded phrase. Black audiences may hear a conversation-stopping “gotcha!” while white audiences will hear it as a familiar accusation. It’s quite the sucker-punch, being pulled into caring about someone’s problems only to be blamed for them.
Throughout the movie, Malcolm is keenly aware that he doesn’t fit the mold of what a black man is “supposed” to be. In fact, it’s basically the root of all his problems. But those expectations, stereotypes and problems come from people in his own community, 99% of whom are black like he is. Malcolm doesn’t throw this back in the faces of the people trying to keep him down. Instead, he saves that ire for Harvard, the one entity that is offering him a way out.

Even as a metaphor it’s unclear who Harvard stands for. On one hand, it could just stand for whites. But the whites in the film are mainly props, and the most prominent white character is a friend and confidant to Malcolm. On the other hand, the main representative of Harvard in the film is a corrupt black businessman with drug ties who actively keeps other blacks down. But if this is Harvard, why does Malcolm want to attend?

More problematic still, the answer to Malcolm’s question would of course be “yes,” which opposes the notion of blacks having different expectations placed on them. As a response to a common admissions question, it reinforces notions of blacks seeing everything as racially charged and expecting to be exempt from ordinary requirements.

Like I said, I chalk this up to a desire to end on a sharp note. Unfortunately, it undermines the pathos of the movie and likely reinforces ideas it was intended to dispel. What do you think?
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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Film Friday: Pixels (2015)

Pixels is an Adam Sandler film. Enough said. No? Ok, I’ll say more. First, let me say that the film isn’t nearly as bad as ALL the critics said. This thing literally had 100% negative ratings. It’s not that bad. But it’s not good either. What it is, is an excellent idea mis-executed in typical Adam Sandler fashion, and all the negatives that entails. What’s funny, is that I can’t tell you how to fix it. Why? Read on.

Plot

Imagine if we sent a radio signal into space and an advanced alien world saw it. Imagine if they mistook the images we sent them as a declaration of war or hostility and they decided to come wipe us out before we did something to them. Sounds like good but somewhat-clichéd science fiction, doesn’t it? But wait, there’s more...

Imagine if the images we sent were actually from our videogames in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. That’s a little more interesting, isn’t it? And what if the aliens use those videogames as a guideline for the rules of war, and what if the aliens have chosen to send electronically-made warriors who resemble the “warriors” in the games we sent and generally follow the same rules from the game. That sounds like it could make for a heck of an interesting and original comedy, doesn’t it? But wait, there’s more...
What if this film also starred Adam Sandler and was basically an Adam Sandler film with Adam Sandler-style jokes about getting hit in the balls, fat guys obsessed with hot girls, flummoxed authority figures, and lots of lazy sight gags? Doesn’t that sound great? Yeah, I had the same thought.

Anyways, the plot is this: aliens are coming to kill us because we sent them images of our videogames, which they mistook as a declaration of war. They have created a set of rules using those videogames. Paul Blart Mall Cop is the President and he brings his friends, Adam Sandler, some fat guy, Peter Dinklage and some hot chick to fight the aliens. They win.
Why I Can’t Fix This Film

Before I talk about this film in any detail, let me say that the film wasn’t as bad as the critics said. It was good-natured. It had some decent laughs now and then too. Basically, it was an entertaining enough waste of time. My kids actually liked it a lot.

That said...

As a general rule, I’ve found space-based comedies to be on the dull side. More often than not, these films have a lot of promise at the outset, having picked creative setups in a rarely-touched field, but then they just seem to fall apart. It strikes me that where they typically fail is in a lack of sufficient affinity for science fiction that they can derive their humor from the science fiction premise.
To give an example, while I found Spaceballs to be funny generally, it still felt flat to me because it was all about non-science fiction jokes. It’s humor was Jewish or Joan Rivers or about black people’s hair. Sometimes it poked fun at Darth Vader, but not in any way that acted as a genuine parody of Star Wars. Worse though, I can’t recall a single bit of humor that would work for a science-fiction comedy. Essentially, this was a Mel Brooks film set against a Star Wars/Princess Bride veneer.

An even better example comes from Mars Attacks. This film is nothing but one running sight-gag. Basically, you’re supposed to laugh at the way the aliens look and the images of what they do – like a head swap between two characters. But there’s little humor in that film that derives from the actual premise of an alien invasion. Essentially, this film is a comedy about infidelity, a crazy president, and just some nonsense characters acting strangely. The aliens are a McGuffin to give these characters some justification for acting strangely. In fact, you could have replaced the aliens with Russians or zombies or even just a rumor of an invasion and almost nothing would have needed to change in the story.
That brings me to Pixels. Pixels has such potential. Think of its potential as an adult version of Wreck-It Ralph. If you saw Wreck-It Ralph, then you saw the amazing potential that a comedy like this has. And what made Wreck-It Ralph work was a combination of a world that was packed with wonderful nostalgic references, a character whose worldview, whose personality and whose limitations derived from that world and who needed to grow beyond those limitation, and a plot that truly felt like something that would happen in this videogame world. Pixels has none of that.

Pixels is an Adam Sandler film. It’s about Adam Sandler and his friends walking though a film ogling women and showing everybody up. You have “loveable loser” Sandler who has a unique talent – playing video games. You have the President of the United States, who is a personal friend of Sandler’s and is so incompetent that there’s no way he could ever be elected. This is Kevin James reprising his role as Paul Blart Mall Cop. You’ve got the fat guy who pines for any woman with big breasts. You’ve got the super hot chick who once dated Sandler and will want him back again once he becomes a hero. Only the Peter Dinklage character feels fresh and interesting, and he gets tossed aside except for two jokes.
The plot involves Paul Blart doing asinine things as other dignitaries stand around looking shocked at what he’s done to the presidency. It involves Sandler showing off to the military, to the media, and ultimately to the world. It involves the fat guy doing stupid things every time he sees a hot chick. Oh, and there are aliens.

Now, at times, the film does make good jokes about the aliens, and those are pretty funny. But again, they are basically sight gags – a cute electronic dog, seeing PacMan on a New York City street, a pretty funny joke involving Cubert, and seeing Cubert wet himself. In terms of the premise itself, however, there’s almost nothing about it that becomes part of the humor. The one exception that comes to mind is when Dinklage somehow manages to use cheat codes in real life. Beyond that though, you could have swapped out the aliens for alligators and nothing would have changed.

As a result of this, Pixels feels like an average Adam Sandler film, but a nothing compared to its potential or Wreck-It Ralph. Unfortunately, this seems to be typical for science fiction-based humor.
So why can’t I tell you how to fix this film? Usually, I can come up with a couple changes that would have helped. This time I can’t. To explain this, a quote from The Matrix comes to mind. Neo asks if they made a mistake because something they expected to happen didn’t happen. Morpheus says, “No. What happened happened and couldn’t have happened any other way.” The same thing is true here. The moment this thing started as an Adam Sandler film, it could follow no other path... it couldn’t have happened any other way. Indeed, by choosing this mix of characters and requiring that Sandler go through the process of being the lovable-loser-turned-winner, it became impossible to have this film to do anything other than what it did. In other words, the structure is so restricting that it cannot be fixed.

Thoughts?
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Monday, March 28, 2016

Books To Film: James Bond

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. In particular, I started reading the original James Bond books by Ian Flemming. In the past couple weeks, I’ve read the three “SPECTRE” related stories: Thunderball, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice. It has been fascinating to compare these books to the films.

Movies rarely follow the books they adapt. More often than not, significant changes are made to make the book work on screen. As a general rule, I’ve found that it’s rare that a movie is as good as the book that inspired it, and even more rare that a movie is better than the book. So imagine my surprise to find that Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and You Only Live Twice are all far superior as films than the books from whence they came.
To start with, the plots of the films are rather different than the books. Thunderball is the least changed, but it still has significant differences. In Thunderball the book, Bond goes to the health spa, as he does in the film, where he gets into a tit-for-tat with SPECTRE agent Count Lippe. Unlike the movie, where this scene is key to leading Bond to the Bahamas however, the book scene is only tangentially related to the bomb plot and Bond never seems to connect the dots. This makes the scene largely superfluous. In fact, M sends Bond to the Bahamas on M’s own hunch, rather than Bond connecting Lippe to Dominique. The rest of the story is fairly similar to the film, though with some caveats addressed below.

By comparison, You Only Live Twice is completely different from the film. In this book, Bond has lost his will to be an agent because of the death of his wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and his inability to capture Blofeld for the crime. He is given a supposedly impossible assignment by M to prove why he shouldn’t be fired. This assignment takes him to Japan where he is supposed to befriend the head of Japanese Intelligence and get them to share their files because the CIA has cut British Intelligence off. In the process, Bond learns that a man who could be Blofeld his built a castle full of poisonous plants which has become a popular place for Japanese people to commit suicide. Bond wastes a lot of time, then goes to apprehend Blofeld and Blofeld ends up dead. No stolen space ships. No devastating plan. Zip.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is similarly without action, as Bond romances Tracy and then spends the rest of the book at Blofeld’s Swiss lair theoretically trying to find a way to arrest him, though there doesn’t seem to be any action in that regard.
Plot-wise, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice both lack anything close to the punch of the films. You Only Live Twice got so dull that I struggled not to start skimming the page-long paragraphs that conveyed little information. Thunderball still works, but it takes a lot of twists and turns which end up as dead ends and it undermines its own tension.

Worse yet, the Bond character is not a good one in these novels. On film, he’s an amazing character. He’s suave, savvy, and violent yet playful. He’s like a combination of everything a man could want to be. Not so in the books. First, book-Bond has little in the way of savvy. He never displays anything approaching keen insight and, to the contrary, misses many obvious signs. He doesn’t seem to have any spy knowledge either, nor does he seem to like his job. He knows little about foreign cultures or languages, nothing about alcohol, and doesn’t seem to have much in the way of specialize combat knowledge. He is best described as a brawler. He doesn’t have the razor wit that film-Bond has either. Instead, he comes across more as a petulant employee.

Perhaps the biggest sin, from a character perspective, is that book-Bond is largely a passive character despite the occasional moment of big talk. In the films, Bond does it all, and he does it with a sense that what he can do easily, others simply cannot do. In the books, Bond lets others do all of the work. He falls into leads rather than chasing them down. He comes across more like a detective than a spy. And he lets others take the risks. Honestly, it’s a wonder that anyone reading these books would think they would make good films and then would transform the book-Bond into the film-Bond.
To make these films out of these books, the producers/directors/screen writers needed to completely overhaul them:
● They needed to give dead-end moments in the plot some meaning and sharpen the consequences so that the stories flowed better and the excitement level was much higher.

● They needed to reinvent the villain to give him bigger, more menacing ideas and a stronger organization (SPECTRE in the books is kind of like an alliance of petty thieves, blackmailers and cranks), to raise it to a world-class organization worthy of Bond’s attention.

● They needed to reshape Bond to be much smarter, more clever, more knowledgeable, more worldly and braver than in the books. They needed to swap out the character traits which make him come across as a petulant clerk who occasionally goes to arrest people for the traits of a solitary hunter, the traits of an indifferent policeman for those of an assassin, and the traits of a by-stander for a man of action. They even needed to give him the Bond-identifiers we have come to expect, like the Austin Martin, the vodka martinis, the sharp suits and “Bond... James Bond.” This is a bit like taking Columbo and turning him into Jason Bourne.
This is one time – three actually – where I’m glad they basically strip-mined the books and then made their own films using the elements they liked. That’s not something I will say often, but it is true here.

Thoughts?

** Hopefully, you enjoyed this article. I’m planning this as a new series, but it will take time because I need to read the books before I can write the articles. I do have a few more ready to go though. :)
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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Film Friday: Topaz (1969)

I’m a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock, though apparently I prefer his lesser known films over his more popular ones: Rope, Torn Curtain, The Trouble With Harry. One that has always frustrated me, however, is Topaz. It frustrates me for the very reason that almost every other spy film frustrates me. Let’s discuss.
Plot
Based on the novel by Leon Uris, Topaz is the story of... well, that’s kind of the problem. Topaz isn’t really one story. It’s a series of backstories that all collide.
The story opens with a Soviet intelligence officer, Boris Kusenov, on vacation in Copenhagen. He and his family walk away from their Soviet minders and slip into the arms of the Americans, led by CIA agent Mike Nordstrom (John Forsythe). This has been a planned defection. The Americans get Kusenov to Washington, where he is debriefed. But the story isn’t about Kusenov or Nordstrom.
Kusenov warns the Americans that the Soviets are placing ballistic nuclear missiles in Cuba. Nordstrom is told to learn more. Unfortunately, the Cubans are a little miffed at the Americans and Nordstrom can’t investigate anything in Cuba. So Nordstrom turns to his old friend Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) of French Intelligence. Devereaux is told to find a man named Luis Uribe, who is part of Cuba’s UN delegation, and bribe him for the information. Uribe can be bought, but he hates the Americans so the fact that Devereaux is doing this for Nordstrom must be kept quiet. There is another subplot coming too, which I’ll get to in a moment.
Devereaux goes to New York City, where the Cuban delegation has taken over an entire hotel. Devereaux cannot get inside without being identified, but his friend, Philippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Browne) can. He is a black florist and former agent who will pretend to be a fellow-traveler journalist working for Ebony. He will claim to seek an interview with Rico Parra (John Vernon), a highly placed official in Castro’s administration. Uribe is Parra’s private secretary. After getting the information, Dubois delivers it to Devereaux and escapes.
Devereaux returns to Nordstrom and informs him that the Soviet’s are indeed placing missiles in Cuba. At this point, the film falls apart. For reasons that are never clear, Devereaux heads to Cuba at Nordstrom’s request to gather more information about the missiles. What information? We never really learn. Basically, Devereaux goes to Cuba, meets a rich woman, and is given the information he needs as a sort of love story unfolds in which we learn that Devereaux and the woman have had an affair, which is ruining Devereaux’s marriage. The woman and Parra also have a sort of relationship, which leads to Devereaux and Parra coming face to face, though little comes of this.

Devereaux eventually leaves Cuba with the information and gives it to Nordstrom. Cuba is then forgotten as Devereaux learns that there is a mole within French Intelligence and he engages in a scheme to smoke the man out. The film ends after this.
This Film Frustrates Me
This film frustrates me so much. It has such potential, but it never achieves any of it. For example, it has some classic Hitchcock moments... but often meanders. The scene where Dubois gains access to the hotel, argues with Uribe, bribes him, gets what he needs and escapes deserves credit as one of Hitchcock’s best scenes. But then the film blows an hour on an irrelevant ex-lovers story between people we don’t care about.
The film has great actors, but asks too little of them. I love Forsythe, but he’s barely in this. Stafford has compelling screen presence, but he spends most of his time watching other characters handle the plot. Browne is fun to watch. He’s wonderfully playful in a deadly serious role, but he gets dismissed from the movie right after he wins the audience over. Vernon is perhaps the only one to hit his potential, but even he is denied a true confrontation with Devereaux.
The film promises so much too vis-à-vis the spy genre, but never delivers. You have a high-level defection, which is handled so well by Hitchcock, but all we see is the escape. There’s no setup to tell us who these people are and there’s no payoff as the story dismisses Kusenov right after he gets to Washington. The story promises a field trip to one of the most fascinating places and times in our history – Cuba at the start of the Cuban missile crisis. Talk about cool! Yet, Devereaux’s "spy work" in Cuba ends up little more than Devereaux visiting a former-lover in a Spanish villa, some stock footage of Castro, and a few tension free moment as some people take some photos. The story even promises a counter-intelligence mission against a highly placed mole in French Intelligence, but it ends up more like a police interview followed by an argument. All of this had amazing potential, but none of it ever came close to achieving its promise.
I am left to wonder why such a master as Hitchcock couldn’t make a great film out of this material. In fact, this is such a common problem with spy films that I almost wonder if there isn’t some problem within the genre. Try naming a group of spy films and you will see a collection of dull, overly-complex, long-winded, boring films. The best are really pure fantasy, like the Bond films, and are often packed with silly double-crosses to inject fake tension, like the Bourne films. The rest are dull, depressed and completely lacking in interesting stories.

So what is the problem? At times, I wonder if it isn’t that Hollywood has an ideological block which keeps it from seeing the Soviets as evil and therefore keeps Hollywood from creating solid conflicts. Indeed, too many spy films are about disillusioned spies who claim to see no difference between East and West. Maybe that’s why they had to create a non-communist SPECTRE, or why they love shifting the focus to rogue CIA operatives to get tension into their films? At other times, I wonder if maybe the writers just assume that defections and outing a mole are exciting enough that there’s no need to build an exciting story around it. But that's a bit like a Western involving only a single gun fight or stage coach robbery without anything else.
The thing is, there have been good spy films, and three in particular give me a clue here. From Russia With Love is a great spy film. It is exciting to see Bond escape Eastern Europe as operatives from the other side hunt him. What makes it work though is that the film spends time building up the characters before the chase begins and it turns the film into a one-on-one struggle between two of the best. The film Breach is an excellent tale of the FBI outing a spy. What makes this film work is getting insight into the mind of the spy as the FBI agent struggles to befriend him, to discover what he is doing, and then trap him. Finally, Ronin is a tremendous film about a heist involving a group of unemployed spies. What makes this film work is the extraordinary skill and knowledge displayed by the characters as they hunt each other. Ultimately though, what made each film work was the relationship of the characters. Each one has equally matched, highly professional opponents who despise each other.

So putting all of this together, a great spy film must have strong characters who personalize the struggle between East and West in their struggle against each other; they must represent different and opposed points of view and they must come to despise each other. And they must use their expert skill to outwit their enemies, either to steal from them, to kill them, to escape them or to expose them, and scene after scene needs to involve close escapes that require a display of extraordinary spy skills or knowledge. When you think of it that way, you begin to see the problem with Topaz. At its best moments, Topaz involves great characters, but little was done with them. There were few close escapes. There was virtually no display of spy knowledge or skill. There was virtually no one-on-one cat and mouse game, and what there was felt over-matched for the hero. What’s more, large moments of Topaz involve the hero waiting for others to do his work for him or are spent on the dull not-love story in Cuba. This makes Topaz a tease only. It has a great premise and the bones of a great plot. It just doesn't have any meat on those bones.
Honestly, Topaz is screaming out for a remake... a remake that exploits the missile crisis and the Cuban circus in New York and injects a real cat and mouse game between Devereaux, Soviet intelligence, Cuban intelligence, and the Americans.

Thoughts?
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Monday, March 21, 2016

Zootopia: Not the Allegory You Were Expecting

by tryanmax

I’ve got to hand it to Disney. I think they’ve really pulled one over on the identity politics crowd. With their latest smash-hit Zootopia, the studio has given the usually unquellable race-baiters, gender-warriors, and plain ol’ Disney haters an allegorical placebo to shut them up. So satisfied are they that Disney finally “gets it” that one outlet went so far as to regard the new film as an apology for Song of the South, a film known almost solely by distorted reputation alone.
Spoiler Alert
All Disney really did, though, is recognize identity politics as a thing. The only message they conveyed with Zootopia on the matter is probably the best one that anyone can actually offer. Simply, “It’s complicated.” Let’s take a look at what they did.

I won't be discussing the plot, which is a twisty noir-ish tale, directly. As such, this article assumes the reader has already seen the movie. For a film synopsis, see here.
Lookin’ Good
In more than one way, Zootopia is all about appearances. For one, it is a visual treat to the eyes. Disney imagination is on full display in creating a world where animals of every species, from tiny hamsters and mice to giant giraffes and hippos, live alongside one another in an urban landscape. I remarked more than once how the characters looked so fluffy on screen that I wished I could reach out and touch them.
That’s a good segue for how Zootopia creates the appearance of handling identity issues. In one scene, a fox does just that, grabbing and handling a sheep’s bouffant while delightedly remarking how fluffy it is. His rabbit companion admonishes him that he can’t do that. This is clearly a reference to the supposed problem of white people always touching black people’s hair.

The script is peppered with little nods to so-called “micro-aggressions” such as this. The police force has a “Mammal Inclusion Initiative” which is clearly an affirmative action program. Judy Hopps, the beneficiary of said program and the first-ever rabbit on the force, asserts that she is not “some token bunny.” In another instance, she informs a cheetah that it’s okay for rabbits to call other rabbits cute, but not for other species. There’s a scene where an elephant store clerk asserts his right to refuse service to a fox. The assistant mayor believes she is only on board to court the “sheep vote.” The terms “articulate” and “patronizing” are conspicuously dropped into a conversation. The list goes on.

All of this is meant to signal that Disney is in-the-know on issues that virtually everyone is already aware of anyway. Otherwise the gags wouldn’t play. So, because Disney can demonstrate their consciousness, some have assumed that Disney is actually addressing the issues. But like the (literal) political animals in their film, Disney actually dodges the question entirely by re-framing it.
It’s Funny ‘cos It’s True
Probably the most memorable scene in the entire film is the one that takes place in the DMV. Judy Hopps is in a hurry but, to her chagrin, the entire office is staffed by sloths. She actually exclaims, “They’re all sloths!?” because she naturally assumes all sloths are slow and, well, they are. It’s actually amazing how well this works for laughs, not just once, but over a dozen times in the course of a couple minutes. At the same time, it totally reinforces that stereotypes do have a basis in real trends. Later, the film also breaks the stereotype when the main sloth is pulled over for street racing, but this is still in service to the same gag. Sloths are funny ‘cos they’re slow, but they’re even funnier if they’re fast.

Again, Zootopia is full of these types of gags. Being a rabbit, Judy has 225 brothers and sisters. Her sidekick, Nick, is a fox and a street hustler. Judy tries questioning an elephant who can’t remember anything. The city’s mayor is a lion. The mob-boss Mr. Big is revealed to be a tiny shrew. A group of lemmings mindlessly follow each other in buying popsicles. A hippie yak is unwashed and swarming with flies. This is Blazing Saddles style humor in a form that can slide past trigger-warning and safe-space sensibilities.

The very makeup of Zootopia (the city within the movie) itself is a gag. It is as much a theme park as a city and it is deliberately segregated by species, just as if it were a human-run zoo. Districts such as Tundratown and Sahara Square provide appropriate habitats for different species, while a neighborhood like Little Rodentia scales the urban landscape to its tiny residents. It’s both humorous and sensible, but it pushes aside any pat solutions to identity issues.
Where da White Bunnies At?
If there is one thing about Zootopia that has the identity politics crowd grumbling, it’s that they can’t quite figure out which animals represent which group of humans. I think that’s by design. Even though the animals of Zootopia inhabit a world very much like ours, even featuring similar political issues, it’s impossible to say that certain animals represent certain groups of people. Rather, all the usual signifiers are jumbled up.
At first, it looks like rabbits and other prey are the oppressed minority. After all, historically they suffered at the hands of predators, as the opening scene points out. But that isn’t the case. It turns out that Zootopia is 90% prey, and they are often openly prejudiced against predators. Yet, somehow, the mayor is a lion and predators occupy positions alongside prey everywhere. In most cases, it actually appears that size matters most, with large species like buffalo and bears filling the police ranks and big mammals generally throwing their weight around. Driving this home early in the film, the assistant mayor buddies up to Judy to say, “Us little guys have to stick together.”

The more you parse the animal groupings in the film, the more complicated it gets. Any attempt to draw straight lines between Zootopia and the real world is going to get uncomfortable really fast. As I already laid out, in Zootopia, minority = predator = savage. That equation ends careers if brought into the real world.

As I see it, the point is not to draw lines between the cartoon world and the real world, as tempting as it may be. Instead, by sidestepping the usual identity markers Zootopia is actually able to tell a compelling story while inserting a non-polarizing message of mutual respecting in a way that is better than simply mirroring current events.
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Friday, March 18, 2016

Film Friday: The Quiet Man (1952)

By Kit

Probably one of John Ford’s best films, and certainly his most beautiful, The Quiet Man focuses on Sean Thornton (John Wayne), his return to his native Ireland, his romance to the beautiful Kate (Maureen O’Hara), and his feud with her brother over the dowry. It is also probably the most Irish movie made in the US, which makes it perfect for St. Patrick’s Day (or the day after St. Patrick’s Day).

The movie is principally a love story. The first half focusing on Sean Thornton’s attempts to woo Kate Danaher and, once successful, earn her brother’s permission to marry. The second half begins at the wedding where an argument results in Will Danaher taking back the dowery. Kate is deeply upset about this because the lack of a dowery, in her mind, makes her something less than a wife, almost a maid. Sean Thornton at first thinks she is being greedy but to her this is not about the money, it’s about more than the money. To her, Sean letting Will take back the dowery was Sean letting a grave insult to him, and to Kate, slide and, one might argue, if he is willing to let Will bully him like that how can she ever expect him to stand up for her in the future? So the second half focuses on the question: Will Sean Thornton stand up for himself and take on Will Danaher?

You know the answer: Of course he will. This, I should mention, is very much set in John Ford’s world of manly fighting and tussling. Two men can have a fight over a girl, or a dowery, and end it shaking hands and walking away amicably. Or walking down to the pub for a drink together and then home for a meal. And Sean Thornton not only stands up to Will in the manliest 10-minute brawl in cinematic, he shows his love for Kate by dragging her all the way to the scene of the fight. (Ok, some parts of the movie might be a tad out-dated and slightly uncomfortable in today’s world)

This movie probably ranks as one of John Ford’s best. The cinematography, always a strong point of John Ford’s, is near perfection here with Ford filming much of it on location in Ireland, a country that provides no shortage of beautiful places to film. With quaint villages and lush landscapes the movie is almost a non-stop show of scenic beauty.

The casting is perfect. John Wayne once again proves, as he did in The Searchers, that he is to this day vastly underrated as an actor, and he is supporting, as in all John Ford movies, by a stellar supporting The aforementioned Victor McLaglen as the brother, Barry Fitzgerald as the local matchmaker, and Ward Bond as the priest, among others, all give performances that provide their own characters a degree of depth you don’t usually see in a supporting cast. Indeed, this is one of the best things about John Ford movies; by the end of the picture you feel you have come to know each of the characters, even the supporting players.

But what of Maureen O’Hara? Much like how Vivien Leigh has embodied and shaped our mind’s image of the antebellum southern belle with her performance of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, Maureen has done the same with the red-headed, green-eyed girls from the Old Country of Oireland. Her performance is as captivating as is her natural beauty. From the moment John Wayne first sees her he is spellbound and so are we. And she pulls it off without ever getting undressed.

In a way, her own natural beauty perfectly complements the natural beauty of Ireland around her.

But it’s not just beauty. She dominates this film almost as much as John Wayne, which is a hard thing to do given John Wayne’s presence. She holds her own pretty well to the extent that this is not a John Wayne-John Ford movie but a John Wayne-John Ford-Maureen O’Hara movie. Not many leading ladies could pull that off.

Actually, when you think about it, in a way this might be more her movie than John Wayne’s.


I hope everyone had a happy St. Patrick's Day. By the way, you can still watch this movie on Amazon Instant Video, if you want.
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Friday, March 11, 2016

Film Friday: Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

I’m back! I admit the ads for this one intrigued me. This movie was sold as a tongue-in-cheek knock-off of James Bond with traces of Vin Diesel’s XXX and Samuel L. Jackson as the villain. What could go wrong with that? Well, what I got instead was a British white trash rip-off of Men in Black without the aliens.

Plot

The story opens with a spy being killed and another (Colin Firth as agent Galahad) breaking the news to his wife and young son. Firth works for a privately run “Secret Service” based out of a tailor shop in London, with a training base in the same castle used by Professor Xavier to train the X-Men. Their agents all wear uptight British-cut suits and old-lady glasses and carry umbrellas. They are essentially caricatures of British “gentlemen.” And they use a variety of gadgets, each of which you’ve seen in James Bond movies.

As an aside, I’m sure that the use of these gadgets and a handful of scenes taken from Bond movies will be described as “an homage,” but they really aren’t used in any creative way to suggest anything other than pilferage.
Anyways, the son’s name is Eggsy. Flash forward. Eggsy is now firmly ensconced British white trash. He can’t speak the English language in any recognizable way. His mother is a welfare whore. He drinks, fights in bars and steals cars. The pride of modern Britain. Firth, who thinks he owes Eggsy because of what his father did, bails Eggsy out of jail and enters him in the Kingsman training program, where he naturally doesn’t fit in with the other snooty trainees. Insert obligatory “bad rich guys mock Eggsy and heroine steps up to defend him” scene.
Meanwhile, in the plot: Samuel L. Jackson, who plays a lispy billionaire who wants to save the world by destroying it, starts kidnapping or co-opting famous people and celebrities. Firth investigates and immediately narrows his suspect list to Jackson because Jackson is the only possible suspect. As he and Jackson then trade uninspired and obvious innuendo telling the other they know what the other is, Eggsy goes through his training montage in a series of scenes you’ve seen in dozens of other films. Meanwhile, Firth acts like he’s doing something. Finally, Eggsy soon teaches us that white trash is tougher than effete rich Brits.

Yawn

//swills beer, knifes someone Oy! This movies sucks! It’s boring and predictable. It’s a pure rip off through and through. And it’s annoying to watch. There isn’t a single moment in this film which is surprising. There are a few things that are supposed to surprise us, like Jackson being a villain who faints at the sight of blood, but that’s a minor idea which the writer wrongly thinks is strong enough to carry the film.

The plot itself is so worn that it’s threadbare. How many times have you seen the young man who is brought into a plot by a friend of his dead father? How many times have you see a training plot that involves the hero start out as the student most likely to fail out, who gets picked on by the rich white males everyone thinks are the best but is defended by the hot chickie co-star, who then shows up the rich white males (who are secret cowards) while proving his natural talent makes him the best, only to decide to quit over some hidden pain, only to come back when his mentor gets killed and everyone is cool letting him lead the team to a victory at the end of the movie. Nope, never seen that before.
Jackson plays an insane villain. Been there, done that a million times. The hot chick turns out to be just as good as the hero and they hook up. Been there, done that too. The boss double-crosses the hero because he secretly works for the villain. Check. There’s a final fight at the villain’s lair that plays out by the numbers. Check. The hero wins because the villain does something stupid which lets him overcome an entire army of henchmen. Check. Yawn.

You get the point.

This movie is Men in Black with the British trash kid in the Will Smith role and Colin Firth in the Tommy Lee Jones role. Unfortunately, whereas that movie thrived on Smith’s fish out of water learning to fit in role and the great chemistry between Smith and Jones, this film fails miserably on both counts. Trash and Firth have zero chemistry. It’s like watching two dead fish lying side by side when they interact. And whereas Smith was endearing in how he learned that the world was bigger than he thought, Trash spends his time showing us that he’s got bigger balls than the rest of the f**ing world! Oy! It’s annoying.
And speaking of annoying, this movie’s politics suck. At first, you wonder if the film might not be conservative because the villain is an environmentalist who wants to kill humanity to save the earth. That sounds like a conservative criticism, but I think the writer just thought they were being “outrageous” in picking an “impossible” villain. The rest of the movie has very different politics. At one point, you get to watch the members of a racist white American church kill each other and you’re supposed to revel in seeing Firth kill them all off. The rich white male candidates are shown to be deceitful, shameful cowards who scream about who they know, whereas the white trash boy is made the hero without reforming any of his nasty traits. Rich = effete. White trash = pure. Ditto on the rich elites who sign up voluntarily with Jackson’s plan to kill off the rest of humanity. There are anti-Thatcher references, anti-police statements, anti-Americanism, and so on.
This film felt to me like it was written by someone from a British low-class community who wanted to make an over-the-top attack on the people who “is f**in keepin me down oy!”, but knew to throw in a handful of Hollywood liberalisms to get it made. And what they did was take a plot they’d seen a million times and fill it with anything they could steal from other movies. Everything – the gadgets, the characters, the locations, the scenes, the plot points, the overall plot itself, etc. – is stolen from some other movie. It’s boring, derivative and insulting.

This one sucked.

Thoughts?
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